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Putin defends Crimean referendum legitimacy to EU leaders as Ukraine's southeast rallies

Published time: March 09, 2014 21:19
Edited time: March 09, 2014 22:39
Pro-Russian demonstrators attend a rally in Donetsk March 9, 2014.(Reuters / Konstantin Chernichkin )

Pro-Russian demonstrators attend a rally in Donetsk March 9, 2014.(Reuters / Konstantin Chernichkin )

Crimea’s upcoming referendum will reflect the legitimate interests of its people, Russian President Vladimir Putin told two EU leaders over the phone. Inspired by Crimea’s actions, eastern Ukraine is also protesting the coup-imposed government in Kiev.

Putin on Sunday had a top-level conversation on the situation in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin press service.

The Russian president “underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea’s legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population,” the statement said.

The “lack of any action” on part of the current Kiev authorities with regard to ultra-nationalists and radical forces acting in Ukraine has particularly been noted by Putin.

While Putin reminded that the power in Kiev was seized in an unconstitutional armed coup, Merkel stressed that, according to Europe’s view, the Crimean referendum violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L-R) sit to watch a fragment of the ballet "Ruslan and Lyudmila" during the G20 Summit in Peterhof near St. Petersburg September 6, 2013.(Reuters / Michael Klimentyev)

The German Chancellor also “pointed out the urgency of finally coming to a substantial result” on the issue of forming the “international contact group” on Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Despite the difference of opinions, the sides have agreed that the de-escalation of tension in Ukraine is in everyone’s interest, the Kremlin statement notes.

Meanwhile, the coup-imposed Kiev government has stepped up pressure on Crimea, blocking the electronic system of the region’s treasury, freezing the autonomy’s accounts, and ramping up the presence of border police on the autonomy’s borders.

According to Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev, Kiev’s recent moves will not affect state payments, including pensions, and Crimean authorities are now opening accounts in Russian banks instead of relying on the frozen ones.

Temirgaliev also told Interfax that authorities are expecting that some additional railway traffic to and from Russia will be ferried over the Kerch Strait. A bridge connecting Kerch and Russia’s Krasnodar Region is also being built “at a rapid pace,” he said.

The future status of the region has yet to be decided by its people; the All-Crimean referendum will take place on March 16.

According to the speaker of the Supreme Council of Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov, Crimea would prefer to keep its status of autonomous parliamentary republic in the case of a favorable outcome of the referendum.

Southeastern Ukraine rallies against govt

On Sunday, thousands of anti-Maidan demonstrators rallying in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk blocked and occupied the regional administration building, hoisting a Russian flag on top. The protesters have demanded that Mikhail Bolotskikh, the region’s head, step down. Bolotskikh was appointed by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities.

Some 3,000 people took part in the rally and about 1,000 broke inside the building, according to Itar-Tass and local media reports. Twitter users claimed that Bolotskikh has already signed his resignation and escaped the city center in a car through a “disgrace corridor” formed by the protesters.

Later on Sunday, the fugitive official declared that he signed the document under pressure and that he is still carrying out his duties.

Before the takeover, pro-Russian demonstrators reportedly clashed with Euromaidan activists demonstrating near a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on Sunday.

Shevchenko’s anniversary attracted rallies in support of Ukraine’s unity all across the country. One of the largest demonstrations took place in Kharkov, where some 10,000 people marched with a huge 100-meter Ukrainian flag and chanted, “No to war!”

The eastern Ukrainian city, which is located just 26 kilometers away from the Russian border and has a large Russian minority, has been extremely divided on whether to accept the current Kiev regime as a legitimate power. On Saturday, more than 10,000 pro-Russian Kharkov residents rallied in favor of rejecting Kiev’s rule, urging the formation of a southeastern federation of regions.

The issue of the federation, referred to as the Autonomous South-Eastern Republic within the Ukrainian state, should be decided by a popular vote as soon as possible, the people demanded.

While the rally itself was peaceful, it ended with several attempts of provocations. Two people were beaten and one shot by unidentified masked people, who quickly left the scene by car. The radical Right Sector movement has denied that its members waged the attack.

Around 7,000 pro-Russian demonstrators in the city of Donetsk on Sunday also supported the holding of a referendum on the status of their region. The people demanded that the status of the Russian language, stripped by the coup-imposed government, be reinstated, and that the “People’s Governor” of Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, be freed.

Gubarev, who was detained in Donetsk by Special Security Forces, has reportedly been brought to Kiev on charges of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine, takeover of power, and seizure of government buildings.

The coup-imposed Ukrainian authorities were also quick to respond to the situation in Lugansk, opening a criminal case on similar charges. Ukraine’s prosecutor general has taken control of the case.

Despite the ongoing popular protests in southeastern Ukraine, the country’s former opposition remained deaf to the people’s demands. UDAR party leader Vitaly Klitschko said in a Sunday interview with BBC Ukraine that those demanding referendums in eastern Ukraine are simply “citizens of another state,” for whom the borders of the country “must be closed.”

Participants at the rally staged on Nakhimov Square in Sevastopol in support of the Crimean Parliament and Sevastopol City Council's decision to reunite with Russia.(RIA Novosti / Valeriy Melnikov)

Facts you need to know about Crimea and why it’s in turmoil